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Ántonia Takes Me Home, by Joshua Doležal

Ántonia Takes Me Home, by Joshua Doležal

The following is excerpted and revised from Chapter 8, "English Major," of Down from the Mountaintop: From Belief to Belonging by Joshua Doležal, ©2014 Joshua Doležal. Used with permission of the University of Iowa Press.

Around the time I began my sophomore year as an undergraduate, I saw a cartoon that summed up how I felt. It was four portraits of a young man with a simple caption: The Four Years of College. In the first he looked clean-cut, serious, collar buttoned over a tie. In the sophomore portrait he had shoulder-length hair, a long beard, and hoop earrings. He mellowed as a junior, hair cropped to his ears but still falling into his face, the beard trimmed to a soul patch and goatee, the earrings now studs. And then his senior picture looked exactly like the first. 

I think of that cartoon while speaking to first-year students who remind me of myself at that age, the ones with no doubts about their future plans. Mostly I let them talk and cheer them on. But there are always a few who sit a smidge too straight, who ruffle a little if I ask about a Plan B. Give yourself time, I say. You might not know yourself well enough yet to be quite so sure. These are the ones who come back as sophomores and ask: How did you choose your major? The short answer, I say, is that sometimes you don’t choose your future. Sometimes it chooses you. The long answer takes me back to the smell of cotton, sunscreen, and clover, back to an immigrant girl watering a team of draught horses in Nebraska, her neck dark from the sun and her body lean and firm beneath her clothes.

My advisor, Dr. Snow, was a kindly man with a shock of grey hair and a gentle laugh, the lone political science professor at King College. Dr. Snow oversaw the prelaw program, so I met with him every fall and spring in his office on the third floor of Bristol Hall, a crumbling brick building which also housed the history and English departments. My law school ambitions were cooling fast after a few political science classes, where I found I could often rationalize at least two of the answers on the multiple-choice exams, almost always talking myself out of the correct one. A giant oak tree shaded my dorm room that year. I woke to its shadow every morning, and I carried it with me to Bristol Hall, where I copied more pages of notes to memorize, knowing even if I had the full notebook at my elbow for the next American government exam, I might still miss the hair’s breadth of reason on which the right answers turned. At the start of my sophomore year, I could feel a crisis of confidence building.

The men and women in my family knew how to hang tough. Once you found a job, you kept it for thirty, forty years. No whining, no hand-wringing about whether you might be happier elsewhere. God provided and you gave thanks and buckled down until God took the decision out of your hands again.

I needed an ironclad reason if I expected my change of heart to make sense to my father and the rest of my family. For most of them, books were for the long winter months when the firewood was split and stacked and snapping in the stove, when the family might gather for a portion of The Hiding Place or The Cross and the Switchblade. My mother ventured further as a young woman, persuading my father to purchase the Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books collection, hoping to educate herself from home. Most of the volumes still glistened in their shrink-wrap, gleaming like another life just out of reach every time my mother ran a dust cloth down the shelf.

It was nearly Halloween in that sophomore year when I fell in love. I studied her in my American literature class, drawn to the glow of her sun-darkened skin, her brown eyes wide and warm and full of light. She gazed at me from the cover of a novel we were reading, My Ántonia, the first book I’d ever read that spoke directly to my own family history. I recognized in Cather’s sketches of immigrants arriving in Nebraska the faces of relatives I’d met during a family reunion at the Czech Days festival in Wilber, where my great-aunt Marcella told stories about my grandfather creeping between rows of onions on their farm during games of hide-and-seek. He was always the easiest to find, she said, because she could see the green onion tops waving as he pulled them to his mouth, munching the juicy shoots as he lay in the dirt. I knew how Jim Burden, the narrator, felt when he described the raw change of seasons in the country: “There was only—spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted.”

Against all this was Ántonia, the pretty peasant girl who coaxed an insect to sing in her cupped hands, who tried to cheer her father when the frontier broke his will, who gave up schooling to plow the cornfields with her brother and the farmhands. Even as a hired girl in town, Ántonia breathed with the vigor of the wild land, waltzing to the piano players who traveled through Black Hawk, sometimes inventing dances of her own as her feet beat the worn floorboards, her legs lithe and strong beneath her spinning dress. Cather brought me back to the summer mornings when my mother read to my sister and me on a quilt in the shade of a plum tree, back to the smells of clover and cotton and sunscreen. I remembered the afternoons I stole for myself in my bedroom, lying on the cold cement floor with All Things Wise and Wonderful as blissfully as Jim and Ántonia lay in the prairie grass with nothing but the blue sky and a golden tree to gaze upon. I’d meant to put these memories behind me as a young man, to fix my eyes on solid things, and most of the novels I had to read for class buttressed this goal. What could be more frivolous, I thought, than all the parlor talk, all the chatter between gentry trying to marry well. Even Melville seemed aloof to me then, his prose too littered with arcana to cast a lasting spell. And if I’d only been given James and Fitzgerald and Wharton to read, I’d surely have held to my path, grinding away at a subject I did not love with no better reasons than work and career and hanging tough to prod me on.

But Cather coaxed blood and flesh from mere words. My people. My life. I let myself live between the pages of My Ántonia, where the shaggy prairie rolled beneath the wind like the memory of innocence, where the curtain between fact and fancy billowed and faded and then disappeared. I groaned when Ántonia was jilted by Donovan, the deadbeat railroad hand, who left her to raise their child in disgrace. I felt the sorrow of childhood friends parting and ached with Jim as he kept trying to come home even as his future dragged him away. My chest rose near the end as he got off the train in Hastings, Nebraska, driving a buggy out into the countryside to search for Ántonia’s farm. When he found her and the wrinkles in her face fell away as he recognized the bright brown eyes of the girl he knew as a boy, I believed I could say with Jim: “I had the sense of coming home to myself.”

It was hard to go back to reading Hobbes and Locke after that, harder still to imagine four multiple-choice bullets on an international relations exam as the touchstones of my destiny, so that January I climbed the groaning stairs to the third floor of Bristol Hall and rapped on Dr. Snow’s office door. He heard me out, his hands crossed in his lap.

“Why English?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling defensive. “Discussions feel more natural to me, and I’m better at writing than almost anything else.” It was a weak answer, I knew, a kind waffling I normally disdained. Was I really trading law school for discussions? My father would not be pleased. 

Dr. Snow considered that and leaned over his desk. “So we’re done with prelaw, then? What do you think you might do with an English major?”

“Maybe journalism,” I said. “Maybe grad school. Maybe I’d want to teach. I guess I need to think it through.” What I knew, but could not yet express, was that everyone needs a story to live by, and I thought I’d found mine. It was a flash of recognition I’d been watching for all my life, the sense that Cather revealed me to myself, breathing a mythic power into my past that I’d never fully glimpsed, like the plough Jim and Ántonia see one evening against the setting sun, the black blade magnified for an instant within the burning orb before falling back into the prairie dusk.

In a few years I’d follow that feeling to Nebraska for graduate school, traveling with my Cather seminar to Red Cloud, where I saw the home of Annie Pavelka, Cather’s childhood friend and prototype for Ántonia, and met Annie’s granddaughter, Antonette, a chatty Czech woman who had lived the novel for so many years that she spoke of the character and her grandmother as one. Our professor, who insisted we call her Sue, walked us through the old opera house, the railroad depot, Cather’s childhood home, showing how faithful the novels we had been reading were to this real place, and I saw that the little town, so much like my own home place, was now forever lit up by its past. After reading Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark, I knew that beyond the chipped Sinclair sign, down the weedy alley behind the old Baptist church, there were still people like Alexandra Bergson and Thea Kronborg waiting to be seen for who they half knew themselves to be, that this could be true of any place. And at the end of the day, when Sue drove us south of town to a patch of prairie just large enough to lie down in and imagine the wild land before it began shearing away from the plough, I felt grateful to Cather for helping me see more here than a vacant pasture.

That day in Red Cloud was still a few years away when I shook Dr. Snow’s hand and creaked down the stairs in Bristol Hall as an English major. It was a relief to let law school go, to unclench that pretense. I stepped out into the chilly afternoon and lit a cigarette as I walked back to the dorm. The term was nearly finished. I’d need a good story when my father sat me down to explain. I’d edit the school paper, maybe intern with a magazine, check out some master’s programs. I was still working it out as I snuffed my Camel on the brick wall of the dorm.

It was nearly dinnertime. Laughter and the chirp of a Super Mario Brothers game ricocheted down the hall, the thump of stereo bass buzzing the light fixture as I walked to my corner room. I sat down at my desk, where I had left My  Ántonia, and read the last chapter again, Jim’s goodbye to Ántonia after their reunion, passing the wagon ruts from the pioneer road that had been cut deeper by rain, like the marks of a bear’s claws slashed into the plains, the wheels of fate and fortune and accident that brought Ántonia to Jim, then drew him away, and finally carried him back to her. I thought about what it meant to come home to myself.

Then I saw there was an appendix that we’d not been assigned, Cather’s original introduction to the novel. It was mostly the same as the one we’d read for class, an unnamed narrator happening upon Jim Burden, a childhood friend, as the two rode a train across the Iowa plains through crushing summer heat, reminiscing about their hometown. The revised introduction ended with another reunion in New York, when Jim brought his friend a sheaf of pages he’d written, everything he could recall about Ántonia. It was a clever way to frame the narrative, drawing attention away from Cather and easing into Jim’s first person point of view. But the original introduction ended a little differently. Before Jim gave his version of Ántonia’s story to his unnamed friend, whom I now imagined as myself, he asked, “Now, what about yours?” I looked up from my desk out the dorm window, where the oak’s branches swayed on a breeze, and then the oak was a plum tree, and I lay in its shade on a quilt with my sister, a book open between us as we listened to our mother read.

author bio

Joshua Doležal is Professor of English at Central College. His memoir, Down from the Mountaintop: From Belief to Belonging, was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2014 and shortlisted for the 2015 William Saroyan Prize. His creative work has appeared in journals such as Shenandoah, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, and Fourth Genre. He has also published essays on the works of Willa Cather in Cather Studies, Literature and Medicine, Teaching Cather, and the Willa Cather Review.